I’ve never met Iain Banks.
And the statement he released yesterday, full of his characteristic humour and dignity, suggests I never will (although I won’t be uncrossing my fingers until I’m reading an obituary). I know plenty of people who have met him, though, including a few who know him well. And they describe exactly what you would hope they would – a man of great charm, of biting wit, of warmth and compassion and the hope and ultimate faith in human beings that shone through in his work.
Roald Dahl made me fall in love with stories, and the power they can have over those who read them. Stephen King ignited my love of horror and suspense. But three novels, read in my highly impressionable mid-teens, made me realise that what can be done with the written word is limited only by the imagination and ambition of the writer: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.
I picked up The Wasp Factory in a bookshop in Grantham when I was visiting my grandparents one summer. I can’t remember the year, or where I’d heard about it, but I know I went into that bookshop looking for it. I remember being intrigued by the beautiful black and white covers that Abacus used to put on Banks’s novels. I remember my lovely, kind-hearted granddad (who himself died far too young, and never saw the grandson he endlessly encouraged to follow his dreams realise his biggest one, of being a published author) asking whether I was sure I wanted to read it. He wasn’t concerned about whether the content was suitable for me – he was a great believer in letting people find things out for himself. He just didn’t want me to be scared. He couldn’t help it – he was my granddad.
I assured him it would be fine.
The Wasp Factory scared the hell out of me. Not the way that the Stephen King novels I was devouring at the time scared me – this was something different. This was a tour de force, a grotesque journey through the physical and mental worlds of someone deeply broken described in prose that was alternately as blunt as a fist and as precise as a scalpel. It was my first experience of an unreliable narrator, of having the rug that I had believed comprised the entire novel pulled out from under me, and having it make perfect, tragic sense.
It was mind-blowing. It was an education in the art of what’s possible. It was an inspiration.
I’m clearly not the only one who thought so – you can read lovely pieces by Glen Mehn and Barry Hutchison here and here, and you can read the thousands of messages that have been left for him in the message book on his website here.
I’ve read everything he wrote as Iain Banks, and I love them all – The Crow Road, Espedair Street, and the much (and unfairly) maligned Dead Air are probably my favourites.
But The Wasp Factory was more than that. It was one of the books that changed my life, and I’ll always be grateful to him for writing it.
And I haven’t given up hope that one day I’ll get to thank him in person.
Not just yet.